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Modern History Sourcebook:
Pierre Loti:
When the Allies Entered Peking, 1900

HERE we are at the gates, the double triple gates, deep as tunnels, and formed of the most powerful masonry---gates surmounted by deadly dungeons, each one five stories high, with strange curved roofs---extravagant dungeons, colossal black things above a black inclosing wall. Our horses' hooves sink deeper and deeper, disappear, in fact, in the coal-black dust, which is blinding and all-pervading, in the atmosphere as well as on the ground, in spite of the light rain and the snowflakes which make our faces tingle. Noiselessly, as though we were stepping upon wadding or felt, we pass under the enormous vaults and enter the land of ruin and ashes. A few slatternly beggars shivering in corners in their blue rags, and that is all. Silence and solitude within as well as without these walls. Nothing but rubbish and ruin, ruin. The land of rubbish and ashes, and little gray bricks---little bricks all alike, scattered in countless myriads upon the sites of houses that have been destroyed, or upon the pavement of what once were streets. Little gray bricks---this is the sole material of which Peking was built; a city of small, low houses decorated with a lacework of gilded wood; a city of which only a mass of curious debris is left, after fire and shell have crumbled away its flimsy materials.We have come into the city at one of the corners where there was the fiercest fighting---the Tartar quarter, which contained the European legations. Long straight streets may still be traced in this infinite labyrinth of ruins; ahead of us all is gray or black; to the somber gray of the fallen brick is added the monotonous tone which follows a fire---the gloom of ashes and the gloom of coal. Sometimes in crossing the road they form obstacles, these tiresome little bricks; these are the remains of barricades where fighting must have taken place. After a few hundred meters we enter the street of the legations, upon which for so many months the anxious attention of the whole world was fixed. Everything is in ruins, of course; yet European flags float on every piece of wall; and we suddenly find, as we come out of the smaller streets, the same animation as at Tien-tsin, a continual coming and going of officers and soldiers, and an astonishing array of uniforms. A big flag marks the entrance to what was our legation, two monsters in white marble crouch at the threshold; this is the etiquette for all Chinese palaces. Two of our soldiers guard the door which I enter, my thoughts recurring to the heroes who defended it. We finally dismount, amid piles of rubbish, in an inner square near a chapel, and at the entrance to a garden where the trees are losing their leaves as an effect of the icy winds. The walls about us are so pierced with balls that they look like sieves. The pile of rubbish at our right is the legation proper, destroyed by the explosion of a Chinese mine. At our left is the chancellor's house, where the brave defenders of the place took refuge during the siege, because it was in a less exposed situation. They have offered to take me in there; it was not destroyed, but everything is topsy-turvy, as though it were the day after a battle; and in the room where I am to sleep the plasterers are at work repairing the walls, which will not be finished until this evening. As a new arrival I am taken on a pilgrimage to the garden where those of our sailors who fell on the field of honor were hastily buried amid a shower of balls. There is no grass here, no blossoming plants, only a gray soil trampled by the combatants, crumbling from dryness and cold, trees without leaves and with branches broken by shot, and over all a gloomy, lowering sky, with snowflakes that are cutting. We remove our hats as we enter this garden, for we know not upon whose remains we may be treading. The graves will soon be marked, I doubt not, but have not yet been, so one is not sure as one walks of not having under foot some one of the dead who merits a crown. In this house of the chancellor, spared as by a miracle, the besieged lived helter-skelter, slept on a floor space the size of which was day by day decreased by the damage done by shot and shell, and were in imminent danger of death. In the beginning---their number, alas, rapidly diminished---there were sixty French sailors and twenty Austrians meeting death, side by side, with equally magnificent courage. To them were added a few French volunteers, who took their turns on the barricades or on the roofs, and two foreigners, M. and Mme. Rosthorne, of the Austrian Legation. Our officers in command of the defense were Lieutenant Darcy and Midshipman Herber; the latter was struck full in the face by a ball, and sleeps today in the garden. The horrible part of the siege was that no pity was to be expected from the besiegers; if, starved, and at the end of their strength, it became necessary for the besieged to surrender, it was death, and death with atrocious Chinese refinements to prolong the paroxysms of suffering. Neither was there the hope of escape by some supreme sortie; they were in the midst of a swarming city, they were inclosed in a labyrinth of buildings that sheltered a crowd of enemies, and were still further imprisoned by the feeling that, surrounding them, walling in the whole, was the colossal black rampart of Peking. It was during the torrid period of the Chinese summer; it was often necessary to fight while dying of thirst, blinded by dust, under a sun as destructive as the balls, and with the constant sickening fear of infection from dead bodies. Yet, a charming young woman was there with them, an Austrian, to whom should be given one of our most beautiful French crosses. Alone amongst men in distress, she kept an even cheerfulness of the best kind, she cared for the wounded, prepared food for the sick sailors with her own hands, and then went off to aid in carrying bricks and sand for the barricades or to take her turn as watch on the roof. Day by day the circle closed in upon the besieged as their ranks grew thinner and the garden filled with the dead; gradually they lost ground, although disputing with the enemy, who were legion, every piece of wall, every pile of bricks. And when one sees their little barricades hastily erected during the night out of nothing at all, and knows that five or six sailors succeeded in defending them (for five or six toward the end were all that could be spared), it really seems as though there were something supernatural about it all. As I walked through the garden with one of its defenders, and he said to me, "At the foot of that little wall we held out for so many days," and "In front of this little barricade we resisted for a week," it seemed a marvelous tale of heroism.

And their last entrenchment! It was alongside the house, a ditch dug tentatively in a single night, banked up with a few poor sacks of earth and sand; it was all they had to keep off the executioners, who, scarcely six meters away, were threatening them with death from the top of a wall. Beyond is the "cemetary," that is, the corner of the garden in which they buried the dead, until the still more terrible days when they had to put them here and there, concealing the place for fear the graves would be violated, in accordance with the terrible custom of this place. It was a poor little cemetary whose soil had been pressed and trampled upon in close combat, whose trees were shattered and broken by shell. The interments took place under Chinese fire, and an old whiteheaded priest---since a martyr, whose head was dragged in the gutter---said prayers at the grave, in spite of the balls that whistled about him, cutting and breaking the branches.

Toward the end their cemetary was the "contested region," after they had little by little lost much ground, and they trembled for their dead; the enemy had advanced to its very border; they watched and they killed at close quarters over the sleeping warriors so hastily put to rest. If the Chinese had reached this cemetery, and had scaled the last frail trenches of sand and gravel in sacks made of old curtains, then for all who were left there would have been horrible torture to the sound of music and laughter, horrible dismemberment---nails torn off, feet torn off, disemboweling, and finally the head carried through the streets at the end of a pole. They were attacked from all sides and in every possible manner, often at the most unexpected hours of the night. It usually began with cries and the sudden noise of trumpets and tom-toms; around them thousands of howling men would appear---one must have heard the howlings of the Chinese to imagine what their voices are; their very timber chills your soul. Gongs outside the walls added to the tumult. Occasionally, from a suddenly opened hole in a neighboring house, a pole twenty or thirty feet long, ablaze at the end with oakum and petroleum, emerged slowly and silently, like a thing out of a dream. This was applied to the roofs in the hope of setting them on fire. They were also attacked from below; they heard dull sounds in the earth, and understood that they were being undermined, that their executioners might spring up from the ground at any moment; so that it became necessary, at any risk, to attempt to establish countermines to prevent this subterranean peril. One day, toward noon, two terrible detonations, which brought on a regular tornado of plaster and dust, shook the French Legation, half burying under rubbish the lieutenant in command of the defenses and several of his marines. But this was not all; all but two succeeded in getting clear of the stones and ashes that covered them to the shoulders, but two brave sailors never appeared again. And so the struggle continued, desperately, and under conditions more and more frightful. And still the gentle stranger remained, when she might so easily have taken shelter elsewhere---at the English Legation, for instance, where most of the ministers with their families had found refuge; the balls did not penetrate to them; they were at the center of the quarter defended by a few handfuls of brave soldiers, and could there feel a certain security so long as the barricades held out. But no, she remained and continued in her admirable role at that blazing point, the French Legation---a point which was the key, the cornerstone of the European quadrangle, whose capture would bring about general disaster. One time they saw with their field-glasses the posting of an imperial edict commanding that the fire against foreigners cease. (What they did not see was that the men who put up the notices were attacked by the crowd with knives.) Yet a certain lull, a sort of armistice, did follow; the attacks became less violent. They saw that incendiaries were everywhere abroad; they heard fusillades, cannonades, and prolonged cries among the Chinese; entire districts were in flames; they were killing one another; their fury was fermenting as in a pandemonium, and they were suffocated, stifled with the smell of corpses. Spies came occasionally with information to sell---always false and contradictory---in regard to the relief expedition, which amid ever-increasing anxiety was hourly expected. "It is here, it is there, it is advancing," or, "It has been defeated and is retreating," were the announcements, yet it persisted in not appearing. What, then, was Europe doing? Had they been abandoned? They continued, almost without hope, to defend themselves in their restricted quarters. Each day,they felt that Chinese torture and death were closing in upon them. They began to lack for the essentials of life. It was necessary to economize in everything, particularly in ammunition; they were growing savage---when they captured any Boxers, instead of shooting them they broke their skulls with a revolver. One day their ears, sharpened for all outside noises, distinguished a continued deep, heavy cannonade beyond the great black ramparts whose battlements were visible in the distance, and which inclosed them in a Dantesque circle; Peking was being bombarded! It could only be by the armies of Europe come to their assistance. Yet one last fear troubled their joy. Would not a supreme attack against them be attempted, an effort be made to destroy them before the allied troops could enter? As a matter of fact they were furiously attacked, and this last day, the day of their deliverance, cost the life of one of our officers, Captain Labrousse, who went to join the Austrian commander in the glorious little cemetery of the Legation. But they kept up their resistance, until all at once not a Chinese head was visible on the barricades of the enemy; all was empty and silent in the devastation about them; the Boxers were flying and the Allies were entering the city!


Source:

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, pp. 249-256.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


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